Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Flames of Faith: An Introduction to Chassidic Thought

Rabbi Zev Reichman's fantastic introduction to Chassidic thought, Flames of Faith, has the wonderful effect of raising one's spirits, reinspiring one's commitment to God and otherwise revitalizing one's entire attitude. It is an excellent book to lend to someone who would like to understand the premise or basics behind the Chassidic movement. It is also fantastic for someone who desires to rejuvenate their spirits and reconnect to God. While the book contains various typos or grammatical mistakes, that has to do with editing as opposed to the content, which is fantastic.

The work opens with a brilliant mashal that explains the creation of Chassidus:

    There was once a king whose only son was a source of enormous pride and joy. Then disaster struck. The young man contracted a mysterious illness, collapsed into a deathly coma, and no royal doctor could revive him.

    In desperation, a professor of herbal medicine was summoned to the palace. The specialist examined the boy and prescribed an unconventional remedy.

    "Grind a twenty eight karat ruby gemstone to a pulp, and then mix it with several common herbs and mineral water and feed it to the boy."

    Many of the king's attendants heard the professor's words as quackery. The rare and precious stone he had requested was the centerpiece of the setting on the king's crown. These skeptics felt that the king's crown should not be destroyed on the directives of a shaman. Other officials contended that their king certainly wanted his court to attempt every possible cure, regardless of cost or plausibility. The professor did not wait for the two groups to resolve their fight. He seized the crown, tore out the jewel that was its heart, and crushed the stone into granules. After feeding the potion to the prince, the boy immediately opened his eyes and eventually recovered fully.

While in Crown Heights this past Shabbat, I learned the rest of the story. This parable was one told over by R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi to explain why the Baal Shem Tov had started Chassidus- the King in the parable is God, the Jewish nation is the crown prince and the Baal Shem Tov was the one who ground down the jewel, extracting the wisdom of Sod, or Jewish mysticism, Torah's most precious part and God's crown jewel, and making it accessible even to the common people. When R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi was in prison, he had a vision of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, who appeared to him and informed him there was a kitrug in shamayim against him for his spreading of Chassidus. He inquired as to what he was to do, and whether he should perhaps stop teaching Chassidus, and they explained that since he had already started, he should finish what he started. There was a distinction between the Chassidus the Besht had practiced and the author of the Tanya's Chassidus. The Besht's Chassidus had ground down the crown jewel, but had only introduced several of these concepts to man; R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi's had simplified these concepts further. Yud-Tes Kislev, today, R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi was released from prison and it is considered the New Year of Chassidus, because the Chassidus he taught after having been released was entirely different from that which he had taught before.

Another parable enclosed in this book which speaks to me is from Sidduro Shel Shabbos, shoresh 5, anaf alef, aleh 15:

    A king once sought to display the broad reaches of his empire. He issued an edict that called on his subjects to provide him with precious stones from the different parts of his kingdom for he desired to fashion a crown that would demonstrate to all the breadth of his rule. The loyal subjects scaled mountains and dug deep mines to find the many different types of gems in the king's territories. A simple peasant decided that he would provide evidence that the king's rule reached the depths of the ocean. He set out in a small boat to the middle of the sea, then he dove into the frothing waters, to try and procure a pearl from the ocean floor. It was a dangerous dive, undercurrents swept him away from his goal, sharks lurked beneath the waves, and his lungs quickly felt as if they would burst from exhaustion. He had to rise to the surface and gulp air many times, yet he persevered and kept diving below. Eventually, he found a tiny pearl. Exhausted, he brought the pearl to the king. The king, touched by the peasant's dedication, took the small and simple stone and made it the centerpiece of his crown.

    ~Flames of Faith, 23

Writes Rabbi Reichman: "Each of us can be the simple peasant in the story. We were sent to this sphere of existence to display the breadth of God's rule. When we obey His commands, while in a lustful, physical body and in a tempting material environment, we demonstrate that God is King even in the depths of the physical realm."

I don't know about you, but I find that immensely comforting. It makes me glad that my small efforts, given how much I don't understand, could still be pleasing to God. Sometimes I feel very overwhelmed by how much there is to learn and how little I know. I become very sad then. What I have to remember is that God wants even whatever it is that I do or can discover, the one solitary pearl I found...

Rabbi Reichman also explains something else I always wondered about:

    Why do some ideas become part of your very personality, fostering feelings and behaviors? Because those ideas resonated with your unique soul. Your soul has a particular character: it might be a very loving soul, because the most powerful part of you is Chessed, or you might have a very poetic soul since Tiferes is the primary force of your personality. Certain presentations correspond to your core. For the giving individual, Talmudic legends (Aggadah) will resonate. His essence is Love (Chessed), the Talmudic stories contain moral ideas that stem from the same source and they are compared to water, another manifestation of Chessed. The poet might find that Jewish poetry such as the heartfelt songs of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi enter him in an intrinsic manner. Daas is a manifestation of your very essence. Daas is the awareness of what is truly relevant, for what is meaningful and relevant to my essence is what I will internalize.

    ~Flames of Faith, 228

I think this does an excellent job of explaining why different approaches will resonate with different people. Some people need a very rational, halakha-based approach to connect to their Judaism, while others need a more emotional approach. It depends on what kind of soul you have and where it emanates from.

He explains further:

    Both approaches, Chabad and Chagat Nehim, are necessary. Different Jews are drawn to varied approaches of serving God. Each Jewish soul is rooted in a unique point in Heaven. The path of service a Jew will find most appealing is the one that corresponds to his root in Heaven. Some souls are rooted in Mochin. These individuals are great intellectuals who can comprehend abstract concepts and Chabad is the approach they should follow. Other souls are rooted in the emotional areas of Heaven and they will find that the approaches of Chassidic groups that emphasize Chagat Nehim are best for them.

    ~Flames of Faith, 258

In a footnote, Rabbi Reichman makes mention of an interesting idea connected to this one:
    This idea is sometimes presented as the lesson of the structure of the first man. Adam was the first human and as a result, all the future souls of mankind were incorporated in his soul and its parts. Some individuals are very generous and they attain a sense of Divine experience through giving charity. These souls were in the hands and fingers of Adam; that is why their innate nature is generosity, and they reach God through charity. Other souls were in the heart of Adam; these are the singers of Israel, those who pray with extra devotion and reach God through the Service of the Heart, Prayer. (Rav Wolfson)

    ~Flames of Faith, 195

So in that way, depending on the soul, one may be attracted to a different type of service. But what is clear is that no matter who we are, we have the ability to please God and to bring ourselves close to Him, and that is the most special feeling in the world.


Neil Harris said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

amazing sefer, got me to be frum

Anonymous said...

where can you buy this book

Anonymous said...

they got you hook line and sinker in one shabbat, impressive.

Anonymous said...

Whatever gets you through the night!

Does he explain what (who) the matir was to go against all the gedolim of the time to start chassidut?

Joel Rich

Unknown said...

hi the chassidic rebbe on the cover is Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Biderman- the Lelover Rebbe.

Yesterday we made exhibits of the first mashal that you quote for the elemantary and highschool here in Vienna in honor of Yud tet kislev, it ended with a game lessons for every day life.

If you are interested in learning chassidut maybe you want to ask someone questions or a learning partner.
feel free to email: chayamushkaa@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

Chana, it's strange to see a talmidah of Halakhic Man write a post like this.

You quote a selection where R. Zevi (we have mutual friends who go way back) discusses the importance of agadata for some people (from p. 228) - you must be aware of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam's essay, published as the introduction to Ein Yaakov (even many English editions have it) as to understanding agadata. It is a hyper-rational approach that fits seamlessly with the Rav's teachings (and remember the Rav was a master darshan who knew how to weave agada into a beautiful, flawless tapestry). For a chasidic view to agadata see God In Search Of Man : A Philosophy Of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel - Chapter 33, Problem of Polarity. A misnaged (Brisker) counter to that would be - closer to "home" (for you) - Rav Ahron Soloveichik's introduction to his first book "Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind."

Chana said...

Yossele, I think that perhaps you ought to read my post Logic & Imagination to understand exactly how a talmida of the Rav can also be a talmida of the Besht...

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

It is my understanding that he Rav learned/taught Tanya with his students (heard from Rabbi Sherman Siff). I believe he had a connection to Chabad from his life; a strong soft spot for Chabad.

I think this youtube video of The Rav at a Fabrengen is very interesting, particularly to this discussion.

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Forgive spelling errors in last comment and that I left out the link: